Monday, November 18, 2013

Losing my voice

After college, I resumed driving the old Taurus station wagon I used to drive in high school. One day when I was cleaning out the car, I found some old cassette tapes and popped one in.

It was a recording of one of my high school voice lessons with Ms. Eden. She was having me warm up my voice and, as usual, I was having trouble with the high notes. She kept trying different approaches, encouraging me to relax, breathe, keep a lighter tone. I kept trying to hit those notes. And then I burst into tears.

I shut off the tape. It was too hard to listen. The rest of the drive, I zoned out, remembering...

I was looking in the mirror, watching the shape of my mouth and looking for jaw tension. But I was not seeing tension, I was seeing tears in my eyes because here was yet another day I was not singing what I knew I could sing, and I did not know where my voice had gone, or why. After weeks of trying to hold it in during lessons, I cried.

And Ms. Eden sat me down on the couch and let me dry my tears and breathe again, and she said gently, “You seem very upset. Is this bigger than just singing? Do you feel like you’ve lost your voice in other parts of life?”

I shook my head fiercely—my eighteen-year-old identity was surely solid. I just loved singing too much to have it become so hard, so painful, so full of failure.

Ms. Eden was my third voice teacher.

My first voice teacher was my mother, who taught me to sing at bedtime, in the car, with a piano, while playing a tambourine in the local music class. Before long, I was singing solos at church and in the school talent show. It came naturally. I got nervous playing the piano or giving a speech, but I never got nervous singing in front of others.

In tenth grade, I was singing in the school and church choirs and had started my own a cappella group with a friend to prepare for my future as a choir director and music educator. There was only one thing missing—formal voice lessons.

So that January, I met my second voice teacher, Kelli—a big woman with a big soprano voice and an even bigger personality. Within the first month of voice lessons she had begun dramatically calling me, “EKATERRRRINA” as an encouragement to develop a big, operatic soprano tone. After a few months, I seemed to be making progress. That May, I auditioned for the top school choir and was accepted. My a cappella group was gaining reputation. Junior year was going to be perfect.

Over the summer I went to camp for six weeks and didn’t sing much other than church songs.

On the first day of school, my high school choir director had us sight read a piece of music we were going to sing. On the third page of the music, the sopranos got into the high F and G range. These are high notes for the average person, but not very high for an experienced soprano. I opened my voice to sing the line, and a terribly unnatural cracking noise came out instead.

I laughed nervously and hoped no one noticed. Apparently my voice had some catching up to do, from the summer!

I went home and fished out my voice lesson songs. I plunked out warm-ups on the piano and sang along. But the same thing happened every time I got into a higher range. Croak-scratch-silence.

I pounded my fist onto the piano keys in frustration.


Voice lessons became torture. It didn’t matter how many times we stopped and went to a lower key. When we went back up, I couldn’t sing the notes. Or sometimes I could, but only after the croak-scratch preceded the note.

So many people asked me if maybe my range had just changed? I heard it so many times I wanted to burst into tears when someone asked. A singer knows. When you are out of range, you are squeaky and off key and it feels stretched, but you can still sing the note. This was different. I had the range in there still. It did not feel stretched. But it felt like something was blocking my notes from coming out.

And no, it also was not a physiological problem. I went to the doctor. They stuck a giant scope up my nose and down into my vocal box while I tried not to gag. There were no polyps or nodes or scratches on my vocal chords. There was a little bit of excess mucous, the doctor told me as though he only wanted to be able to tell me something. He prescribed an anti-mucous spray and Kelli seized the idea and insisted I drink more water and wear a scarf all the time. Because that’s what singers do—Ekaterrrrina!

By the end of the school year, I was able to fake it enough to make choir manageable. I could sing the Fs and Gs, and maybe only half the time the croak-scratch would come before the note, and if I concentrated really hard and sang it really forcefully, half the time it would just come out, and I would breathe a sigh of relief. Voice lessons were another story. Kelli would smile and babble and have me lie on my back, or squat down as I sang high, or point my finger at the imaginary ribbon of sound I was attempting. And I would try and try and try, and come home and crash on my bed and sob for hours.


It was around this time that I dove deeper into my piano studies, playing a couple hours a night, sometimes in the dark, sometimes with tears in my eyes.

It was around this time that I made audition tapes for several college music programs, in both voice and piano, but I started leaning more towards piano.

It was around this time that I took an environmental science class and got excited about the demographic transition and the food crisis and international poverty.

It was around this time that I decided I was not going to major in music to become a music teacher. I wanted something bigger than suburbia and teaching some kids to sing. I was going to study English and Environmental Science and then I was going to save the hungry people of the world.

When I arrived at college, I majored in English and minored in Environmental Studies and traveled to Bangladesh and Tanzania to learn about the hungry people.

Halfway through my first semester, still battling the singing problems, I was halted one day, by the music we were singing in choir. Sigrid Johnson explained to our choir how to sing the Latin “lauda” like a praise, strong and free—and how to sing the same “lauda” like a plea in a sad moment, dark and full of aching. I was full of aching, and full of the music, and I rushed back to my dorm room, thinking, music can save the world too. For twenty-four hours I scoured the course catalog and tried to figure out if I could still switch to a music major.

But no, it was too late. And it wasn’t what I wanted anyway. Right?


We still don’t know what happened to my voice that year. I quit taking lessons from Kelli Young and had two amazing voice teachers over the next five years, Lisa Eden and Sigrid Johnson. I returned to doctors and clinicians and tried many techniques. At some point I started explaining it this way: Kelli Young was a big woman with a big voice. I was not. She tried to get me to make a sound like hers, but I had to push and force my voice to do this, and I learned some bad techniques.

And even though Ms. Eden worked through it with me during my senior year of high school, and even though I made the all-state choir that year and sang a high “C” in my recital, and even though three years with Sigrid Johnson in college helped me work on breath and healing and loving singing again, and even though I remained a first soprano—

It was never really fixed. It was never easy and free, as it had been. I don’t sing classically anymore, but if I did it would still be there, at least a little.

Sometimes when I hear a song that touches me, I wish music had become my career. I wish it had become my life. Sometimes the questions come, and they are enough to keep me up at night. Why did croak-scratch-silence come into my life? Why did the high notes never come back, no matter how hard I prayed, no matter how long I practiced? Why did I never sing in the St. Olaf Choir? Why did I finally quit voice lessons and go to Africa instead? Was I expanding my horizons, or giving up? What would have happened if I had never lost my voice? Will I ever have the opportunity to fully express my music again?

For all those years, it was music that would make my heart full. These days, there are many things that can fill it—maybe not quite as full, but still. A conversation with a good friend.  A book that feels like a good friend. Helping a student achieve a goal. An impromptu jam session with my brother when I am home. Praying in silence as the sun peeks out from behind the river and the trees. Writing my life and sharing it with all of you.

Maybe all of these things, in part, have become my voice.

Let me be clear. That still doesn't give me an answer to the whys and what-ifs. This is not an attempt to gloss over or try to tie loose ends together in a nice little happy-face package. A loss is a loss, and that is a real thing.

But there is also what we do have. There is also the way unanswered prayers and detours become their own lovely path.

After college, I returned to Africa to teach English at a boarding school. In the evenings, the lonely girls and I would gather in the classrooms and sing songs together, no high notes, no pressure, no fears, just beautiful music in three languages—me and sixty other aching hearts.

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